Review | Erotic Haiku: Of Skin On Skin

Erotic HaikuSo this book, Erotic Haiku: Of Skin On Skin, deserved to be reviewed a couple months ago, but it seems I’m undergoing another change of life (also available directly from Black Moss Press). I feel as though I’ve accomplished little to nothing since the new year, and I take that as a sign that something’s in need of change. My first life change, in my twenties, got me out of academia and into the building trade. I suppose I’m a Master Carpenter now, and that has helped me earn a living, but I’m ready for another change. Among other things, I’ve taken up the ethos of Minimalism. I just recently donated a couple hundred pounds of books to the library. I’ve been moving furniture out of the house and in general trying to declutter my life and mind, along with my goals. I’m increasingly considering an eventual move back to Europe, maybe the Netherlands or Berlin. I’m done with owning things or rather—being owned by them. And part of that is living in a country where we don’t need a car.

So, if you’re a follower of my blog you may remember that last year and the year before I wrote a haiku a day—two years worth. There’s nothing as minimalist as the Japanese haiku—a beautiful form of poetry and ethos. I think that next year I’ll be ready to write another year’s worth—if only to declutter the mind. The poet learns to perceive what is essential and ineffable with the minimal intrusion of the self—and of words. And so, what to make of erotic haiku? The erotic, in a sense, is nothing if not absorption in the self.

Japanese poets prior to the 20th century only rarely wrote the patently sexual or erotic haiku. One was far more likely to find the erotic in Tanka, a form which, though men were among its great practitioners, was considered a feminine form and the domain of female poets. The most beautiful Tanka are generally considered the love poems of female poets like Ono No Komachi (834[?]-?), serving the Heian court in present-day Kyoto, and Izumi Shikibu (974-1034), “who wrote poetry ranging from the religious to the erotic, at the zenith of the Heian court. (At the same time, Murasaki Shikibu wrote and presented the world’s first psychological novel, The Tale of Genji.)” Baymoon.com.

That said, and before Basho, haiku were home to a more coarse kind of sexuality, unsuited to Tanka and, perhaps, mostly comparable to the modern limerick. Once haiku were established as an art form (and but for the few female poets who mastered the form) such coarseness all but disappeared. Though Basho counted women among his favorite disciples, the form was generally considered masculine and unsuited to ‘feminine’ preoccupations (which apparently included the erotic). R.H. Blythe, who did more to introduce haiku to Western culture than any other westerner, bluntly considered women incapable of writing haiku (and his attitude probably reflected that of his Japanese hosts). He made no effort to conceal his contempt for women [italics mine]:

“The dead child,
Who tore the paper-screens—
How cold it is!

Chiyo’s authorship of this verse is doubtful, but so is whether women can write haiku.” (A History of Haiku: Volume One, R.H. Blythe p. 223)

By my informed speculation, Blythe would have had nothing remotely favorable to say about erotic haiku.  In fact, he would have considered the form and subject matter an insult and an impossibility. The erotic was unfit for haiku—only suitable for Senryu. And Blythe generally dismissed Senryu as beneath serious consideration. Senryu are three line poems, formally identical to haiku, but distinguished by their subject matter (usually confined to people, humor and human foibles). Only once or twice did Basho write anything that could be construed an erotic haiku. By in large, Basho treated sexuality as a subject fit for coarse, adolescent humor. (Strikingly like Robert Frost, by the way.)

It wasn’t until the 20th century that women were truly accepted as equals and, perhaps not coincidentally, that the erotic increasingly appeared in haiku and were accepted as such. To my knowledge, no male poet would have written the following:

beyond the dark
where I disrobe
an iris in bloom

on the skin of a woman
who has never conceived
hot autumn sun

Katsura Nobuko (1914-2004)

None of this is to say that the erotic belongs to the feminine domain, only that this is how it was historically perceived in Japan.

So. Erotic haiku are new and have no tradition to speak of. And that’s cool. If you’re reading erotic haiku, then you’re essentially reading the creation of a new form, genre and tradition. So, I was very excited to receive a new anthology of erotic haiku by the editors George Swede and Terry Ann Carter, the former having urged Rod Wilmot to compile an earlier and outstanding anthology of erotic haiku called Erotic Haiku (scroll to the bottom of the page).

Let’s start off by saying that the book itself is beautiful, about 8×5 inches or so.  The collection opens to the book’s signature haiku:

dry spell
the spark of skin
on skin

Dan Curtis

And that’s not bad. The poem plays on the undying cliché of lust as something hot without falling victim to the cliché. Following that is an introduction explaining the genesis of the book. In an unwittingly humorous moment, the editors discuss “how the haiku is taught in schools, in particular, how to get teachers to see haiku as poetry”. Well, isn’t the answer obvious? Sex. Mr. Swede goes on to remark: “The idea was met with loud approval.” To which Mr. Swede offered: “I was reluctant”.

Erotic haiku in schools? What could possibly go wrong?

Anyway, Swede’s new anthology expands on Wilmot’s anthology by including more than just the heterosexual experience. Swede elaborates:

The content of Of Skin On Skin is more varied than that of its predecessor. The first includes only heterosexual eroticism while this one adds masturbation, threesomes, and LGBT sensuality. Both anthologies are a product of their times. The first mirrored the beginnings  of the sexual revolution in North America. The second reflects the expanding views of what soceity deems appropriate after the passage of more than three decades. [p. 8-9]

Swede’s introduction is followed by Terry Ann Carter’s. She begins by quoting an obscure New England poet, author of an equally obscure blog called PoemShape, who published a review of Jeffrey Winke’s coquette:Sensual Haiku:

“Eroticism and haiku are a perfect fit. Just as the haiku is the art of indirection, so too erotica. Whereas the explicit is an imaginative endpoint, the best haiku are a suggestive starting point for the imagination.  Suggestiveness is all – allusion, inference, and association.  And when haiku fail because they were made too explicit, eroticism fails for the same reason: eroticism becomes pornographic.”

And I still believe that. She adds:

The earlier conception of a 5/7/5 structure has given way to a freer form; most haiku poets today agree that a haiku should consist of seventeen syllables (if there is no artificiality) or fewer. It is the movement, not the syllables, that matter. [p. 10]

From there, the anthology proceeds. Thankfully, we’re given more than one haiku per page which, artsy though that is, inevitably makes me feel like I’ve paid for paper rather than poetry. The contributing authors are offered in alphabetical order and the haiku are truly of a high quality. Any poet who is thinking of writing erotic haiku should buy this anthology and study it.

How to preserve the haiku’s tradition of seasonal reference alongside the erotic:

solstice··············the thin white line around her suntanned hips

first kiss
··············the taste of apple
··············on her tongue

~ nick avis

path of sperm
from breast to navel
winter light

~ Micheline Beaudry

The erotic Senryu (humor and human foible):

quickie
the pasta
boils over

~ Micheal Dudley

The humor is not just that the pasta boils over, but the suggestion that this “quickie” lasted longer than the recommended 8 to 12 minutes. And then there’s the playful comparison of orgasm and “pasta boiling over”. This kind of haiku/senryu uses a favorite technique of mine: suggesting a little story beyond the three lines of its form.

his cock
hard again
the phone rings

~ Jennifer Footman

There are a delightful number of ways one could read the haiku above: Has she or he had to work hard at reviving his cock? Only to have the phone ring? Maybe it’s his wife calling? There’s any number of ways the imaginative reader could read Footman’s haiku.

Or another favorite of mine:

halloween
putting on our masks
to make love

~ Marco Fraticelli

The haiku seems straightforward, but one could just as easily speculate that the lovers are strangers, and that it’s the masks that make them familiar to each other. Some readers dislike the ambiguity of haiku, but ambiguity can be the life blood of both haiku and eroticism.

And here’s another nicely ambiguous haiku by Daniel G. Scott:

dawn
summer’s heat
still on her back

And how does one read that?

dawn—summer’s heat. still on her back

or

dawn. summer’s heat still on her back.

I prefer the former. Having been made love to, perhaps the night before, she still lies on her back—surprised perhaps, his and her orgasm still wetly between her thighs, now in the haze of summer’s humidity.

i’d like to straighten
your bra strap
on my coat hook

~ Brendan Hewitt

I have no idea, but I love Hewitt’s haiku. Has to be among the best and most inscrutably suggestive I’ve ever read. Others wanting to write erotic haiku should memorize Hewitt’s haiku (and not just as a come-on line). Where are the lovers? Are they in a hotel? And what does that even mean—straighten your bra strap? I have an idea. It’s the combination of entirely novel imagery suggesting a mood and desire in an entirely novel way. Remember this haiku if you’re ever tempted to resort to the usual erotic platitudes.

And then there’s the supremely suggestive haiku by Lynne Jambor:

silk kimono
in a puddle
at her feet

There’s the nice metaphor of her kimono as a puddle at her feet, but it’s the suggestion of her arousal also puddling between her feet that elevates this haiku above the mundane. To see both makes this haiku not only lovely, but erotic.

  • There’s a good post over at Brief Poems called Nipples—50 Ways to Write an Erotic Haiku. The author writes that it’s “difficult to see how an erotic charge can be maintained without the benefits of verbal foreplay.” I would counter that the poems above suggest just how to do that. The erotic charge relies on the reader’s imagination and ability to elaborate on a haiku’s suggestiveness. A haiku, after all, is nothing if not foreplay, the best haiku suggest and intimate without asserting. They’re starting points, not endpoints. They aren’t three line descriptions of sex (as is so often the case with poets who lack an understanding of haiku).  Curiously, the author adds: “When it comes to the more salacious aspects of the form, what may be called hard-core haiku, questions of propriety, taste and value arise.” I disagree. Questions of taste and propriety are unrelated to value. The question isn’t whether a given work of literature is tasteful or shows propriety—leave that entirely moralistic question to prudes—but whether the work has artistic integrity. Well-written erotica, even hard-core erotica, isn’t as easy as it looks. As I wrote above, it’s the difference between the erotic and the pornographic.

There’s also the tender and touching:

widowed
she sleeps on his side
of the bed

~ Joanne Morcom

And then there’s Beth A. Skala. I loved every one of her haiku and can only hope to read more by her. They’re gently humorous, erotically suggestive, and novel. Here’s one of three:

pushing a snowball
down her skirt—
nipples perk up

Not only a seasonal reference, but a nice haiku-like association between something playful and something erotic. Do her nipples perk up simply because the snowball is cold, or is there something more erotic at play? — the way play, among adolescents and the young, can turn into a realization of the erotic. The haiku suggests a kind of awakening that’s both harmless and subversive.

hot summer night
she takes off
her crucifix

~ George Swede

And one wonders what came off first? The clothes or the crucifix? I somehow would like to think it’s the latter.

The 60 page book closes with short biographies of all the different contributors—something I appreciate and enjoy when reading poems I like. And as the back matter of the book states: “The meaning of “erotic” varies greatly… To many, it conjures actual intercourse—foreplay, climax and an array of emotions afterwards. For others, it is linked only tangentially to the sexual act: watching a bee enter a flower, recalling a glance from another or the smell of someone’s hair or skin smooth to the touch or a whisper in one’s ear or the taste of something sweet on a lover’s tongue.” Fortunately, neither understanding of the erotic excludes the other (as it so often does in other anthologies). Swede and Carter offer both.

Granted, the editors have quoted me in their book, and I might like that (just a little); but this really is a collection of erotic haiku that I would recommend. If you enjoy erotic poetry, get it while you can. I’ve seen too many anthologies like these go out of print and go up in price—and by up in price I mean in the $50 to $300 price range.

up in Vermont | May 7th 2018

Other reviews of Erotic Poetry:

Erotic Poetry, Love & Passion • Three Books Added

Reviewed and added the following books to Erotic Poetry, Love & Passion • A review of Poets & Anthologies:

  • Erotiku by Lisa Marie Darlington
  • The Poetry of Sex edited by Sophie Hannah
  • The Literary Companion to Sex edited by Fiona Pitt-Kethley

You will find it below and appended to the larger review linked above.

Erotiku: erotic haiku for the sensual soul
by Lisa Marie Darlington

erotikuThis is a book I really looked forward to getting my hands on. Anyone who’s been following my blog knows I love haiku and erotic poetry in general. Erotiku has only been fitfully available at Amazon, mostly OP or of Limited Availability. When I saw it available at list price with a used book dealer, I snagged it.

The cover is great; unfortunately, the poetry not so much. Like so many western authors, Darlington seems to have walked out of the haiku tutorial at ‘three lines‘. The author herself doesn’t go much beyond this description in the book’s brief introduction. She writes:

 

“Haiku is known to follow the metrical 5-7-5 syllable structure, yet I have revised it to take on a more contemporary form. It’s composition does not follow any kind of syllable rule, yet it still holds true to the three line pattern.”

As if that were all that made a haiku (or senryu for that matter). At the close of the introduction she’ll write that “western haiku tries to imitate old Japanese Haiku with little understanding”. The criticism, unfortunately, is applicable to the entirety of her collection.

The book is thick with one haiku per page. You’re essentially buying blank paper. Having said that, Darlington’s presentation isn’t all that different from other haiku collections. She hints at aesthetic reasons for doing so, maybe to savor each poem individually. The problem is that there’s really not that much to savor. The best senryu and haiku are rich with allusion and suggestiveness. They invite the reader to conjure what the poet leaves out. The reward is traditionally a realization of nature’s interconnectedness (haiku) or the humorous foibles of our humanity (senryu). There’s a broad spectrum between these two, but all the best haiku and senryu serve as an imaginative starting point, not end point. And that’s the problem with Darlington’s erotiku. They’re too often an end point.

Kama Sutra Art

Selected positions
Kama sutra art
Of intense connection

A “poem” like this (presented the way she centers them in her book) has nothing whatsoever to do with haiku or senryu. It’s little more than a statement in three lines. There’s nothing remotely erotic other than by association. The reader is likely to respond: Yes, and? This is Darlington at her least successful and unfortunately typifies, to a greater or lesser degree, too many of her haiku (which I think number around two hundred?—I’m guessing since there are no page numbers).

Arched Out in Pleasure

Her slender body
Curved to the couch
Back arched out in pleasure.

This is more typical of Darlington’s erotiku.  They are descriptive prose passages in three lines. The reader will find lots and lots of these. I suppose it’s erotic/pornographic, but that’s as far as it goes—an end point rather than a starting point. There’s no sense of narrative or realization. By way of comparison, a rare (and possibly) erotic haiku by Basho:

to get wet passing by
a man is interesting
bush clover in rain

This was translated by Jane Reichhold who comments: “The euphemism ‘to get wet’ was often used in tanka where the reader could decide how this happened, from rain, dew on flowers, tears, or sexual activity.” And this, in my view, is profoundly more erotic than Darlington’s essentially three line descriptions of pornography. The reader is invited to finish Basho’s haiku. Is it really erotic? If so, what happened? Did they have a quickie? Is she wet because she was turned on or because he fucked her? Is she the bush clover? Is he the rain? Or is it simply a coincidental spring rain the makes her wet as she passes by a man?

Other issues I have with Darlington’s erotiku are her tendency toward “pigeon English”:

Thighs asphyxiating

Thighs asphyxiating
Around neck and shoulders
Squeezing like a heart attack.

Erotic clichés:

Hot Fire

Hot fire
Kindling, the passion
That burns like Hell.

Descriptive redundancy, verbosity and too many adjectives:

Your tongue walks

Your tongue walks
Heavily, up against
The surface of my naked skin.

She doesn’t need up, surface (as this is implied) or naked (also implied). It’s her skin his tongue walks on, after all, not her clothes. (Too great a use of adjectives and overstatement are probably Darlington’s most consistent failings.)  Or consider the following where only needlessly appears twice:

Sexy Thong Panties

She buys sexy thong panties
To only please
Herself only.

And does the reader need to know they’re sexy? It’s overstatement that repeatedly mars Darlington’s poetry.

Also, whether the decision was deliberate or simply not a part of their tradition (or language), Japanese poets never made use of like or as. The idea of the simile was there, but was handled far more subtly and to greater effect. Unfortunately, the simile is all too frequent in Darlington’s poems. [Note to western poets: Haiku aren’t glorified similes. Don’t write simileku]:

His Raising Blade

His raising blade
Cutting through; like shears –
Through her wilted flower.

(There again, through needlessly appears twice.)

A bit like a broken clock though, Darlington gets it right every now and then:

Stirred by Moonlight

Stirred by moonlight
The afterglow of sex
Glistens

This is actually quite good. There’s a play on the notion of afterglow that works nicely with moonlight. If only she had written more like this.

However, in fairness to Darlington and having written all this, I think it’s worth pointing out that the book is a record of her sexual awakening. As she points out in the first sentence of her Forward: “Not to [sic] long ago, I shunned myself from erotic pleasure. ¶ Not only did I find it dirty, filthy, downright skanky and vulgar – but degrading as well… ¶ Then, through my greatest despair, came the union of my lover. He showed me that through lovemaking and experiencing of such erotic explosions, that sex wasn’t something to be ashamed of, yet something to be celebrated and explored.” My heart goes out to her. Anyone brave enough to publish a book like this and to share their erotic life with other readers deserves some praise.

If you’re willing to set aside literary expectations and willing to read the book as a kind of awakening and erotic autobiography (in a series of three line poems) then I highly recommend it.

  • The Book About 8 by 5. Good paper. Readable. No page numbers. No index. Sans serif font.
  • Comparisons This book compares to Seduction in the 1st Degree: A Collection of Erotic Poetry, by Lisa Marie Candield. The poetry may be amateurish in both, but if one’s willing to trade that for exuberance, then both books beautifully compliment each other.
  • You and your Lover Maybe you’ll be inspired?
  • Embarrassment Be prepared to explain yourself if you happen to leave this on the coffee table, but then maybe that’s a good thing.

Sex ♥♥♥♥♥♥
Art N/A
Romance ♥♥
Look & Feel ♥♥♥♥
Poetry ♥♥
Index N/A

The Poetry of Sex
Edited by Sophie Hannah

The Poetry of SexFinally, a title that says it and means it. In case you were wondering, this is indeed a book of poetry about sex. And to keep things short and sweet: I consider this to be one of the best anthologies available. Without hesitation, I rank it among my other favorites: intimate kisses; Passionate Hearts; The Erotic Spirit; The Best American Erotic Poems.

The editor, Sophie Hannah, is delightfully playful in her introduction, fully aware that her selection is weighted toward the actor Daniel Craig (you’ll just have to read it). Compare Hannah’s playfulness to the starched-underwear snootiness of Peter Washington’s Everyman collection: Erotic Poems (if you want to ‘compare and contrast’). Hannah has no problem with the pornography that is, much to the apparent shock of many a literary editor, the defining attribute of sex and erotica.

The book is divided into sections with the headings:

  • ‘So ask the body’
  • ‘Also those desires glowing openly’
  • ‘A night plucked from a hundred and one’
  • ‘All our states united’
  • ‘But your wife said she’
  • ‘What’s in it for me?’
  • ‘Oh right. You people don’t remove that bit’
  • ‘God, to be wanted once more’

Each section has about 19 or 20 poems, and that adds up. Not an inconsiderable collection. The poems range from Catallus, though Shakespeare, and to contemporaries like Hannah herself, Rubbish at Adultery, and Sharon Olds (who, though I don’t much care for her mainstream poetry, easily writes some of the best erotic poetry around). I suppose what differentiates Hannah’s collection from the other anthologies is her sense of humor. Though there’s only so much scope for that preference in pre-20th century poetry, she nevertheless finds some choice nuggets. In her contemporary choices her nose for the humor in erotic literature really shines:

Their Sex Life
A.R. Ammons

One failure on
Top of another

Or this poem by Irving Layton:

Bicycle Pump

The idle gods for laughs gave man his rump;
In sport, so made his kind that when he sighs
In ecstasy between a woman’s thighs
He goes up and down, a bicycle pump;
And his beloved once his seed is sown
Swells like a faulty tube on one side blown.

But I also don’t want to give the impression this anthology is just for laughs. It’s not. The difference is in allowing that sex isn’t always about overheated stares, cataclysmic orgasms or the ecstasy of “spiritual”, quote-unquote, unions. Sometimes sex is just sex—fun, funny, and as dirty as you want it to be. It’s books like this that persuade me that all the best writing of the latter 20th and early 21st century is in erotica. The rest, in my opinion, is largely a morass of mediocrity.

  • The Book About 7 by 5. Good paper. Readable. One poem per page. Nice font. The best of index of any erotic anthology to date: Index of Poets, First Lines and Titles. I mean, to all the others: How hard is that to do?
  • Comparisons This book belongs on your bookshelf alongside intimate kisses; Passionate Hearts; The Erotic Spirit; The Best American Erotic Poems.
  • In Translation One or two from the antiquities.
  • You and your Lover Got a poem you want her to read? All you have to do is remember the poet, the title or the  first line.
  • Embarrassment Only keep this on the coffee around toddlers who can’t read titles.

Sex ♥♥♥♥♥♥
Art N/A
Romance ♥♥
Look & Feel ♥♥♥♥♥♥
Poetry ♥♥
Index

The Literary Companion to Sex
by Fiona Pitt-Kethley

Literary Companion to SexThis is a book published in 1992 and I’m not sure why I haven’t gotten round to reviewing it until now. It’s easily one of the most comprehensive anthologies of not just poetry but of sex and erotica in literature of any kind. In other words, you’ll find not just passages of poetry but passages from the Bible, Drama, Elizabethan pamphlets, short stories and novels. At 415 pages, there’s a wealth of material grouped, as the introduction puts it, into “five wide periods”:

  • The Ancient World
  • The Middle Ages and the Renaissance
  • The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century
  • The Nineteenth Century
  • The Twentieth Century

Among other luminaries, you will find the earily 20th century’s great egotist, Frank Harris. Going back to the ancient world you will read passages from Aristophanes, Ovid, Terence, and Apuleius. Selections from the Middle Ages include a literary passage from the Chinese author Wang Shih-Chen but are mostly limited to examples from the English. The author, in the forward,  suggests a reason for this. She writes:

“The manual type of book can be seriously boring. Even at fourteen, I can remember all those ‘yonis’ and ‘lingams’ of The Kama Sutra turning me off, not on, as I perused it under my desk during scripture lessons. It was hard for me to find a likeable passage in either that or The Perfumed Garden. ¶ In the end I decided that my criteria for choosing would be these: realism, humour, or the unusual—preferably all three. It was important to find realistic writing, simply because there’s so little of it.”

Fair enough. I’m inclined to agree with her, though one might fairly ask if her selections don’t reflect her own cultural biases. I’m not asserting they do, but the question arises. Are readers in India turned on, rather than off, by yonis and lingams? — or do they also prefer cunts and cocks in their literature?

Some other observations she makes are, I think, worth mentioning.

On the ancient world:

“The writers of the ancient world, in the main, proved to be the most open and unashamed about sex, although a slightly prurient, shocked tone crept into their news reportage (the sensationalist historians, Suetonius and Procopius). But are journalists of today any different?”

On the Middle Ages:

“The Middle Ages and the Rennaisance, although bawdy, were overshadowed by religion and doom. Conversely, their religious writing often had sexual overtones. The fate in hell of the aduleress in Gesta Romanorum provides a memorably kinky image of tortured womankind that must have provided good masturbation material for pious monks everywhere.”

On the 17th century:

“By the time we reach the seventeenth century, dildoes, and jokes about them, are big news, as are venereal diseases. The Restoration and the eighteenth century provide a period of frankness similar to that of the ancient world. It’s probably the easiest period in which to find good sex writing.”

On the 19th century:

“I knew from the start that the nineteenth century would give me the biggest problems. Apart from some good French literature and Byron, what was I to include? Literature became schizophrenic during Victoria’s reign. Sex didn’t happen in official literature, but it happened nonstop – to an unrealistic extent – in The Pearl and other underground writing. Kinkiness was in. ¶ Apart from mainstream writing and underground pornography, there’s a third tradition in the nineteenth century — one that’s often ignored. Isolated individuals had begun to collect folklore. Writing for ‘the learned reder’, these writers could be a little franker than those who wrote for the mass market, like Dickens. And mercifully, their style is usually of  far higher quality than that of the average nineteenth-century pornographer. These folk tales hark back to older traditions, keeping alive the bawdy spirit of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.”

On the 20th century:

“By the twentieth century we are into mixed territory. I sensed curious affinities across the eras — Apollinaire’s erotic novel with Rochester’s Sodom; one of e.e. cummings’s poems with an anonymous seventeenth-century one; Eskimo Nell and Procopius’s Empress Theodora — another fucker of cosmic proportions. There is also, alas, a great deal of bad writing. Authors frequently make great claims for their own honesty, only to get bogged down in prurience and their own embarrassment. I avoided all passages that talked about waves beating on shores. (That sort of writing’s only permissible if the couple are doing it on a beach.) Still, on the plus side, there is a tremendous range of ideas and experience in the writing of the twentieth  century — everything from bestiality to vibrators.”

And that ought to give you a flavor for the kind of erotic writing Pitt-Kethley has anthologized. If you’re looking for a collection offering literature besides poetry, you can’t do better than this (as far as I know). Consider this the best anthology of erotic literature currently available.

 

  • The Book About 8 by 5. Acid paper. Will yellow over time. Readable. Nice font. An index of authors only.
  • Comparisons For the erotic connoisseur, this book belongs on your bookshelf alongside the poetry of sex, intimate kisses; Passionate Hearts; The Erotic Spirit; The Best American Erotic Poems.
  • In Translation Mainly antiquities, Chinese and some French.
  • You and your Lover Not the kind of tome to snuggle between yourself and your lover, but if you’re wondering whether your great (to the tenth power) grandparents liked it the way like you like it, this is the book.
  • Embarrassment A high brow addition to your accidentally discovered coffee table collection. Your guests may want to borrow it. Your only embarrassment will be in having to ask for its return — please?

Sex ♥♥♥♥♥♥
Art N/A
Romance ♥♥
Look & Feel ♥♥♥♥♥
Poetry ♥♥
Index

T.S. Eliot’s Erotica

web-ts-eliot-valerieA new edition of T.S. Eliot’s poetry is going to be published and according to The Guardian it will include at least three heretofore unpublished erotic poems. The poems were written for Eliot’s second wife Valierie Fletcher. She was a tall girl. He was 68. She was 30. And her nipples were just the right height when sitting in his lap:

I love a tall girl. When she sits on my knee
She with nothing on, and I with nothing on
I can just take her nipple in my lips
And stroke it with my tongue. Because she is a tall girl…

The poem closes:

Her breasts are like ripe pears that dangle
Above my mouth
Which reaches up to take them.

And:

In another poem, Eliot – who took a vow of chastity in 1928 after being confirmed into the Church of England – celebrates the “miracle of sleeping together” as he “touch[es] the delicate down beneath her navel”.

And that’s about all that I can squeak out of the Guardian. The various articles are all reporting the upcoming edition with a suitably detached air of scholarly inquisitiveness. Since the poet’s death, his sexuality seems to be a much discussed topic among the poet’s cognoscenti—call it “ivory tower tabloid-ism”. Valerie’s own statement on the matter is admirably direct:

“Valerie, who was 5ft 8in (1.7m) tall, kept control of his estate until her death three years ago when the notebooks came to light. She hinted publicly that their sex life was just fine, after an interviewer asked why his first marriage had failed. “There was nothing wrong with Tom, if that’s your implication,” she said.”

I’ll be buying that edition soon as it comes out.

Erotic Poetry, Love & Passion • Three Books Added

Reviewed and added the following books to Erotic Poetry, Love & Passion • A review of Poets & Anthologies:

  • Haiku for Lovers edited by Laura Roberts
  • Erotic Haiku by Oliver Grant
  • erotic poems: E.E. Cummings

You will find them appended to the larger review linked above.

Erotic Poetry, Love & Passion • Two Books Added

Reviewed and added the following books to Erotic Poetry, Love & Passion • A review of Poets & Anthologies:

  • Libidacoria: In a Plain Brown Wrapper by Kristie LeVangie
  • 4play by Kristie LeVangie

You will find them appended to the larger review linked above.

Erotic Poetry, Love & Passion • Four Books Added

Reviewed and added the following books to Erotic Poetry, Love & Passion • A review of Poets & Anthologies:

  • Love Haiku: Japanese Poems of Yearning, Passion, and Remembrance
  • Four Centuries of Great Love Poems
  • A Book of Love Poetry
  • William Shakespeare on The Art of Love: The Illustrated Edition of the Most Beautiful Love Passages in Shakespeare’s Plays and Poetry

You will find them appended to the larger review linked above.

Erotic Poetry, Love & Passion • A review of Poets & Anthologies

  • As of April 2016, this post has been viewed over 20,000 times. :-)

The Art of Erotic Poetry

I love erotic and love poetry and have several collections; some are good, some are not.

This is a big post, overdue, and the books are given in no particular order (I made a pile on the floor).

I thought readers might enjoy a post giving an overview of what’s available—something which I’ve already done for Erotic Haiku. First, the question: What makes a good erotic poem? Here’s what I wrote in my opening to paragraph to Erotic Haiku:

Just as the haiku is the art of indirection, so too erotica. Whereas the explicit is an imaginative endpoint, the best haiku are a suggestive starting point for the imagination.  Suggestiveness is all – allusion, inference, and association.  And when haiku fail because they were made too explicit, eroticism fails for the same reason: eroticism becomes pornographic.

To me, the best erotic poetry is an imaginative starting point, not an endpoint. The best erotic poems are like the best metaphors; which is to say, to paraphrase the great poet EA Robinson, erotic poetry “tells the more the more it is not told”. When poems become too explicit, they lose something.

Note: I’ve included the books in the post Erotic Haiku in this post for the sake of completeness, but not a detailed review. You can find that at the original post. I’ve also reviewed three more collections of Erotic Haiku and have added them to the present post.

  • Favorite Anthologies: I’ve been asked what I consider to be the best among these anthologies. I strongly recommend the following five:
  • intimate kisses
  • Passionate Hearts
  • The Erotic Spirit
  • The Best American Erotic Poems
  • The Poetry of Sex
  • The Literary  Companion to Sex
  • Erotic Haiku edited by Hiroaki Sato

After each review I’ve added a rating – 1 to 6 ‘s, 6 being the best.

Sex ~ Sex
Art ~ Illustrations and Artwork
Romance ~ Passion & Love Poetry
Look & Feel ~ Typography, Layout, Readability
Poetry ~ Its Quality
Index ~ Content, First Line, Title, Author

  • Note: If you are a poet or publisher who would like me to add your erotic book of poetry to this list (as some publishers have requested), please send a review copy. I’m too poor to buy. Seriously (having spent it all on erotic poetry). I’ll update this post with your book the day I receive it. If you think a book should be on this list, and isn’t, let me know. If you disagree with anything I’ve written, comment. More books will be added over time and I’ll notify those who follow the blog that I’ve done so with a post.

Enjoy!

Continue reading

The Beautiful Changes

the word exchange

Last week, April 28th, I drove up to Burlington to listen in on a reading by Greg Delanty, Major Jackson, SMC poet/professor Greg Delanty, and SMC Associate Professor of English Kerry Shea. The poets were celebrating the publication of The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation. The reading was sponsored by The Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers.

The weather worked in their favor. Burlington was beautiful and, at last, showing some signs of spring. Finally, in Vermont, the grass is turning and the first buds are greening the trees. The evening was warm. Any other poetry reading I might have skipped for a date with my longboard, especially in Burlington.

But there’s something I love about Anglo Saxon poetry. It’s beautiful, to my ears, in the same way that some of the earthiest poetry of New England is beautiful. The best Anglo Saxon poetry speaks with a directness and simplicity you won’t often find in the sophisticated and cosmopolitan utterances of the Roman poets. And though stark, the Anglo Saxon temper also comes with a rugged humor and gamefulness typical of poetry in simpler and less self-conscious cultures. You have to go back to Sappho’s time and the earliest Chinese poets to find the same sorrow, laughter, nobility and raw sexual humor. The Anglo Saxons were also avid riddlers and story-tellers, to a degree, perhaps, that is unique to them. (Their riddles keenly interested and influenced J.R.R. Tolkien.) They wrote Beowulf. Many of their shorter poems retell the dealings of Thanes, Kings and Cheiftans – good and bad.

The book orders the poetry into subject matter and content. Here’s what you will find (in order):

  • Poems of  Exile and Longing
  • First Riddle Hoard
  • Poems about Historical Battles, People, and Places
  • Second Riddle Hoard
  • Poems About Living
  • Third Riddle-Hoard
  • Poems About Dying
  • Fourth Riddle Hoard
  • Biblical Stories, Lives of Saints
  • Fifth Riddle-Hoard
  • Prayers, Admonitions, and Allegories
  • Sixth Riddle-Hoard
  • Remedies and Charms
  • Final Riddle-Hoard

Seems to me the table of contents alone could sell the book. Who wouldn’t want to read the Remedies and Charms? — a strange collocation of Christianity, Witchcraft and Paganism. I wonder if our contemporary poet, Annie Finch (self-proclaimed Wiccan), hasn’t read these remedies and charms?

Of all the categories, The Biblical Stories, Lives of Saints, are to me the least interesting or compelling. All the rigor seems to drain out of the Anglo Saxon inkwell when they write about a distant, dysfunctional tribal people, the Israelites, and their obsession with real estate and a fitful God. The whole of it was utterly foreign to the Anglo Saxons and the poems feel pro forma (even if through the lens of their own experience). Better to include them, I suppose. Missionaries were fussily converting the Anglo Saxon pagans, but the poems still feel like book reports. Fortunately (for us and the rest of the poems) the Anglo Saxons get right back to betrayal, rings, sex, swords, a good joke and, above all, grim, hard deaths. They were a people who lived life in the bone and were much better when Christianity was subservient to their own ethos.

old English þrosoðy and translation

Worth noting is that there is no single translator. Each of the poems has been translated by a different poet and this brings up a subject I’ve discussed before. I disagree with the notion that a poem’s form doesn’t need to be translated: it’s rhymes, rhythm, meter, stanzas, etc… There are translators who denigrate such attempts. The results, they say, frequently contort syntax, word order and meaning for the sake of form. However, I find their arguments self-serving. The genius of poetry, up until the 20th century, was not just in its content but also in the patterning and beauty of its language. Like the earliest Chinese poems, many scholars believe Anglo Saxon poetry may have been written to the tune of this or that melody – certainly many believe they were likely to have been sung or chanted. Their poetry doesn’t rhyme, but it is patterned through the use of stress and alliteration.

Anglo Saxon prosody works like this: Each line is called a stich (pronounced stick). And every Anglo Saxon line, or stich, is divided in two – a first half and a second half. Each half is referred to as a hemistich. Each hemistich has two stressed syllables. There can be any number of unstressed syllables. (If you’re not sure of the difference between stressed and unstressed syllables, you can check out my guides to Iambic Pentameter.) Each half of the line (each containing two stressed syllables) is divided by a caesura — a pause.

  • Stressed syllables! // Strong verse!
  • Oh stressed syllables // make strong my verse!
  • Stressed will be the syllables // that make strong my verse!

Each line would be permissible, each containing two stressed syllables. There can be any number of unstressed syllables. The second requirement for an Anglo Saxon line is alliteration. Alliteration is when the consonants of each stressed syllable are the same or sound alike. In the lines above, the S sound is repeated in the first and second stressed syllable of the first hemistich and in the first syllable of the second hemistich. One more important rule: the second syllable of the second hemistich never alliterates except in the rarest of circumstances. So, if a is an alliterating syllable and b is a non-alliterating syllable, the possible combinations are as follows (based on The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics):

  • a a // a b
  • a b // a b
  • b a // a b

And that’s that. A commonly referenced modern example from Richard Wilbur, his poem Junk, can be found here. I love the poem, but Wilbur doesn’t follow the rules (the second stressed syllable in the second hemistich alliterates in many of his lines). A fun modern pastiche can also be found at asu.edu, a poem called Beocat. However, this poem, like Wilbur’s, bends the rules by alliterating the second syllable of the second hemistich. So much alliteration just seems too much for the modern poet to resist (not made from the stern stuff of the Anglo Saxon poet).

Anyway, trying to convey the formal aspects of any poem in translation is, indeed, difficult. But if the original poet thought it worthwhile to sweat over and struggle with, then why shouldn’t the translator sweat? Why is the translator exempt? Why do some translators make excuses and rationalizations? In my opinion, the translator who only translates the content of a traditional poem, is only translating half the poem. When Mandelbaum translated Dante’s Divine Comedy, he didn’t try to recreate the rhyming tercets of the original, but he did recreate the feeling of form and structure by writing blank verse. Mandelbaum also used blank verse to translate Ovid. (The accentual-syllabics of blank verse was foreign to the quantitative verse of Latin poetry.) I’m not suggesting that modern poets should always try to recreate the alliterative verse of the Anglo Saxons, but I do think there’s value in recognizing the traditional beauty of the original poem and language by recreating it’s rigor in our own.

At first glance, two poets out of the several dozen contributing poets, Derek Mahon and A.E. Stallings, managed to approximate what an Anglo Saxon might have heard. Here are the opening lines to the poem Durham, translated by Mahon:

Is ðeos burch breome     geond Breotenrice,
steppa gestaðolad,    stanas ymbutan
wundrum gewæxen.     Weor ymbeornad,
ea yðum stronge,       and ðer inne wunað
feola fisca kyn          on floda gemonge.
And ðær gewexen is    wudafæstern micel;
wuniad in ðem wycum    wilda deor monige,
in deope dalum      deora ungerim.

Known throughout Britain, this noble city
Its steep slopes and stone buildings
are thought a wonder; weirs contain
its fast river; fish of all kinds
thrive here in the thrusting waters.
A great forest has grown up here,
thickets throng with wild creatures;
deer drowse in the deep dales. (….)

  • If you want to hear Durham read in the original, Michael D.C. Drout, Prentice Professor of English at Wheaton College is heroically reading the entire corpus of Anglo-Saxon prosody. He reads Durham here.

And here are the opening lines to The Riming Poem, translated by A.E. Stallings (whose opinion on translating are like my own):

Me lifes onlah       se þis leoht onwrah
ond þæt torhte geteoh,    tallice onwrah
Glæd wæs ic gliwum,      glenged hiwum
blissa bleoum,      blostma hiwum
Secgas mec segon,     symbel ne alegon
feohgiefe gefegon;     frætwed wægon

The Lord lavished life on me               I had it all
Blessings were rife for me                    honor in hall,
Clad in the gladsome                               cloth of the looms
Dyed with the handsome                      hues of the blooms,
Men the looked up at me,                      friendship reigned
Filling the cup for me,                            wine never waned.

  • The riming poem is unusual in that it also rhymes in the original Anglo Saxon (which may be why Stallings was asked to translate it). One wonders if the original poet was excited by what he or she had written. By the standards of the day, it’s a tour de force performance. Professor Drout reads the poem here.

While many of the poets in the Word Exchange dispense with formal structure, writing free verse, (words are exchanged but there’s no verse exchange), I was nevertheless pleased to see that equally many tried to honor some sense of the original. (I was disappointed not to see Annie Finch. If she was overlooked, a pity.) However, the benefit of so many contributors, as Greg Delanty likes to stress, is that we are reminded that Anglo Saxon poetry doesn’t consist of one author or voice but of many (whose names have been lost). We are also made aware of the many different ways a poem can be translated, a kind of tour in and of itself, and what different poets value in translation.

the great  variety

One of the poets who read at the The Word Exchange was Major Jackson (someone I was finally able to meet). Jackson opted for free verse (by his own account, he originally attempted to introduce some traditional elements into his translation). Jackson translated The Gifts of Men. I’ve just been reading Walt Whitman and I couldn’t help but be struck by the Whitmanesque breadth of Jackson’s translation and, by extension, the Anglo Saxon original.

Fela bið on foldan    forðgesynra
geongra geofona,   þa þa gæstberend
wegað in gewitte,    swa her weorude god,
meotud meahtum swið,    monnum dæleð
syleð sundorgiefe,      sendeð wide
agne spede,    þara æghwylc mot
dryhtwuniendra     dæl onfon.
Ne bið ænig pæs    earfoðsælig
mon on moldan    ne pæs medspedig,
lytelhydig,      ne þæs læthydig,
þæt hine se argifa   ealles biscyrge
modes cræfta   oþþe mægendæda,
wis on gewitte   oþþe on wordcwidum,
þy læs ormod sy   ealra þinga,
þara þe he geworhte    in woruldlife,
geofona gehwylcre.

Behold God’s prevailing gifts on earth, discernable
to all souls! His unique powers are bestowed
and apportioned widely to every woman and man.
None are so wretched, unfortunate, or feeble-minded
to believe that the Giver of all has not endowed them
at least with a living breath, speech, and a smart mind
to appreciate their wordly abilities in this life.

With this broad-hearted beginning, the poet proceeds to a list of all the peoples and their avocations.

Sum in mæðle mæg modsnottera
folcrædenne   forð gehycgan,
þær witena biþ   worn ætsomne.
Sum mæg wrætlice   weorc ahycgan
heahtimbra gehwæs;   hond bið gelæred,
wis ond gewealden   swa bið wyrhtan ryht,
sele asettan,   con he sidne ræced
fæste gefegan   wiþ færdryrum.
Sum mid hondum mæg   hearpan gretan,
ah he gleobeames   gearobrygda list.
Sum bið rynig,    sum ryhtscytte
sum leoða gleaw,    sum on lande snel,
feþespedig. Sum on fealone wæg
stefnan steoreð…

One is a visionary statesman and effective member of the parliament.
One is a master architect of high-ceilinged buildings, a deft hand, disciplined and judicious, drafting expansive halls that last.
One skillfully plays the harp.
One flies swiftly round the track, one makes a good shot, one is limber, one is swift, first to finish a foot race.
One maneuvers a ship over harrowing waves.

  • Professor Drout reads Gifts of Men here. Drout also provides a complete prose translation.

Jackson’s rendition, for me, conveys some sense of the original poet’s joy and pride in his life and people, again reminding me of Whitman. There is a capaciousness that is unmatched, to my knowledge, by any other poem in any other ancient language: Greek, Latin, Chinese, Japanese.

The Anglo Saxons seemed to love a riddle and, like the rest of us, couldn’t get enough of sex. Put the two together and humor was inevitable. The following poem was read several times, at the meeting, both in Modern English and Old English:

Riddle 25
Ic eom wunderlicu wiht,    wifum on hyte,
neahbuendum nyt;    nængum sceþþe
burgsittendra,     nymþe bonan anum.
Staþol min is steapheah    stonde ic on bedde,
neoþan ruh nathwær.      Neþeð hwilum
ful cyrtenu    ceorles dohtor,
modwlonc meowle,    þæt heo on mec gripeð,
ræseð mec on readne,      reafað min heafod,
fegeð mec on fæsten.     Feleþ sona
mines gemotes,          seo þe mec nearwað,
wif wundenlocc.        Wæt bið þæt eage.

  • Professor Drout’s reading is here.

Call Me Fabulous translated by Gerry Murphy

Call me fabulous,
that rare thing,
a woman’s delight.
Ever ready in the kitchen,
harming none but those
who would harm me.
Standing tall in my own bed,
my talk rigid on its hairy root.
That haughty girl,
the churl’s beautiful daughter,
deigns to take me in hand,
fribbles me to distraction,
stashes me in her sanctum,
weeps at our union.
Not a dry eye in the house.

The following riddle is my personal favorite:

Hyse cwom gangan,  þær he hie wisse
stondan in wincsele, stop feorran to,
hror hægstealdmon,     hof his agen
hrægl hondum up,     hrand under gyrdels
hyre stondendre    striþes nathwæt,
worhte his willan;    wagedan buta.
þegn onnette,      wæs þragum nyt
tillic esne,      teorode hwæþre
æt stunda gehwam     strong ær þon hio,
werig þæs weorces.    Hyre weaxan ongon
under gyrdelse      þæt oft gode men
ferðþum freogað      ond mid feo bicgað.

Marcia Karp’s translation begins:

A boy came walking to where he knew
she would stand for what he would do.
He stepped from afar to her in that corner.
…………His hand raised his shirt.
…………He pushed under her skirt
his stiff I-know-not-what and he horned her.

To read the rest of the translation you will have to read the book. Drout’s reading can be found here. The answers to these riddles can be found on line and in the back-matter of the book.

One of the great Old English poems is The Wanderer, a plum among the many and one that Greg Delanty plucks for himself — a substantial poem of loss, grief and the passage of time. We read a poet’s lament from a thousand years ago, thinking of his own sense of loss and how his own life briefly passed, and can’t help wonder at who will read our words a thousand years for now and wonder at the briefness of our own lives.  You can read his translation and hear the poet himself here.  The Ruin, translated by Yusef Komunyakaa, is another poem in a similar vein and puts our own sense of loss and time in perspective. I’m reminded of Frost’s The need to be versed in country things.

For a clear-eyed vision of death and decay, something the Anglo Saxons were well acquainted with,  read The Damned Soul Addresses the Body:

“Listen, mudball, how come you abused me?
You skinbag, all shriveled up at alst,
You paid little heed, in your hunt for pleasure,
To the hard future in store for your soul
Once it had been banished from the body.
Am I the offender? Isn’t it you, worm-fodder?

Or read The Riming Poem:

….The day for me     comes arrow-swift
With deadly aim     as it approaches,
And just the same     the night encroaches
That won’t condone     my tenant’s terms,
Abode of bone.   Wassailing worms
Feast afresh     where limbs lie slain
Devouring flesh:    only bones remain….

It’s humbling to read this passage. From our perspective the poet’s passing was a few words and silence. So were the thousand plus years between us and him; and so will be the next thousand years. That said, there’s a painting in Cornwall-on-Hudson. It might still be at the 2 Alices, one of my favorite cafés when visiting upstate New York. It says something like: Each minute, your life is a minute shorter. I thought about it and decided the minutes were more enjoyable if considered this way: With each minute, your life is a minute longer.

The Anglo Saxons had a word for the wondrous world, it’s Wundorworuld.

In the poem The Song of the Cosmos, not only does the poet convey their joy in the wondrous world, but one can’t help be reminded of Tennyson’s great poem Ulysses. The poem begins:

Wilt þu, fus hæle,    fremdne monnan,
wisne woðboran   wordum gretan,
fricgan felageongne   ymb forðgesceaft,
biddan þe gesecge    sidra gesceafta
cræftas cyndelice    cwichrerende,
þa þe dogra gehwam   þurh dom godes
bringe wundre fela    wera cneorissum!

Hard-striving soul, greet  the wayfaring stranger,
To the keen-sighted singer give welcoming words,
Question to the questing one of all the worlds before,
Implore him to tell of incalculable creations,
The innate artful forces forever quickening
That day after day under God’s dominion
Bring wonders laid bare to fairing generations.

When I read Shakespeare, I think that he had more in common with his hard-living and stern-skinned Old English forebears than with the prim and decorous Restoration poets who were to follow. The thing to know about the Anglo Saxons is that they are our poets. They are the first poets of our English language. They loved the same words we love. And if any of your ancestors are from the British Isles, the blood of these poets runs in your veins. When you read the poetry of the Anglo Saxons, you are truly reading the poetry of someone from whom you descend.

In some sense, what the Book of Songs is to the Chinese, the poetry of the Anglo-Saxon poems is to our culture. Read it and know what the first speakers of your language grieved, loved, laughed at, and enjoyed.

Further Links:

Bright Star by John Keats, His Sonnet

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

  • Sept 22, 2009 • Just learned that Jane Campion has made a movie “based” on the relationship between John Keats and Fanny Brawne. You can watch the trailer at the bottom of the post.

About the Poem

I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your loveliness and the hour of my death. O that I could have possession of them both in the same minute. – John Keats in a letter to Fanny Brawne

Bright Star is one of Keats’s earlier poems and I can’t help but detect the opening of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116.

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

Shakespeare equates love to a star and this association was surely present in Keats’ mind from the time he first read Shakespeare’s Sonnet. That is, the star isn’t only a symbol of steadfastness and stability, but also love. And love, in Keats’s mind, is unchangeable and ever-fixèd (or else it isn’t love). Shakespeare’s Ever-fixèd turns into Keats’ steadfast. Shakespeare’s never shaken turns into Keats’s hung aloft the night and unchangeable. R.S. White, in his book Keats as a reader of Shakespeare, makes note of some other parallels as well:

…it is not possible to ignore a creative connection between Keats’s resonant line, “Bright Star, would I were stedfast as thou art–‘ and on the one hand the phrase of the undoubtedly ‘stedfast’ character, Helena,

‘Twere all one,
That I should love a bright particular star, (I.i.79-80)

and on the other, although the play is not marked, Julius Ceasar’s more ironic ‘But I am constant as the northern star’ (Julius Ceasar, III.i.60). Such echoes, whether intende, unconcious or even coincidental, display vividly the special compatibility between the language and thought of Keats and the parts of Shakespeare which he appreciated and assimilated so thoroughly. [p. 72]

White’s survey of Keats’ Shakespearean influence isn’t just guess work by the way. Keats’ copy of Shakespeare’s plays is still extent, along with his comments, underlinings and double-underlinings. White’s book is an interesting commentary on Keats’ reading of Shakespeare. White observes another interesting parallel between Shakespeare and Keats’ poetic thought:

[Keats] picks out one of the images in the [Midsummer Night’s Dream] to convey his enthusiasm for Shakespeare’s poetry of the sea, which he often equates with Shakespeare himself:

Which is the best of Shakespeare’s Plays? – I mean in what mood and with what accompaniment do you like the Sea best? It is very fine in the morning when the Sun

‘opening on Neptune with fair blessed beams
Turns into yellow gold his salt sea streams’

Keats seems to be trusting his memory for the quotation, for his ‘salt sea’ is actually ‘salt green (II.ii.329-3). By associating Shakespeare himself with the moods of the sea, Keats is perhaps conveying something of his notion of the dramatist’s developement, implying that after the morning of this play the sea will become rougher as the day goes on. Shakespeare’s sea-music informs Keats’s poetry as well, particularly in the sonnets ‘On the Sea’ and ‘Bright Star’. [p. 102]

What White doesn’t mention are the parallels between Keats’ Sonnet and Shakespeare’s. Notice how the sea makes it’s appearance in both sonnets.

…it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark…

Compared to Keats

…watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores…

And there are also some parallels in Keats’ letters that remind one of the Sonnet’s central themes. Fanny BrawneThe most explicit, in terms of thematic content, comes from May 3, 1818, in a letter to his fiance Fanny Brawne.

“. . .I love you; all I can bring you is a swooning admiration of your Beauty. . . . You absorb me in spite of myself–you alone: for I look not forward with any pleasure to what is call’d being settled in the world; I tremble at domestic cares–yet for you I would meet them, though if it would leave you the happier I would rather die than do so. I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your Loveliness and the hour of my death. O that I could have possession of them both in the same minute. I hate the world: it batters too much the wings of my self-will, and would I could take a sweet poison from your lips to send me out of it. From no others would I take it. I am indeed astonish’d to find myself so careless of all charms but yours–remembering as I do the time when even a bit of ribband was a matter of interest with me. What softer words can I find for you after this–what it is I will not read. Nor will I say more here, but in a Postscript answer any thing else you may have mentioned in your Letter in so many words–for I am distracted with a thousand thoughts. I will imagine you Venus tonight and pray, pray, pray to your star like a Hethen.”

Love letters don’t get much better than this and Keats’ Sonnet is thought to be a love poem to Fanny Brawne – and John Keats PortraitBrawne herself treated it as such. She copied Bright Star into her “very dear gift” of Dante’s Inferno – along with its thematically related (but much less successful) companion sonnnet As Hermes once took his feathers light (see below).  Anyway, worth noting is his comparison of Brawne to a star and his desire, as in the poem, to “swoon to death” or, as he puts it – “I could take a sweet poison from your lips to send me out of it.” The play of death and orgasm shouldn’t be overlooked in all this romantic swooning. The conceit is probably as old as sex and, Keats, if nothing else, was an über sensualist. If tuberculosis hand’t killed him, sex probably would have.

There are still some more interesting parallels. Amy Lowell, in her biography on Keats called John Keats, argues that during a visit to a Mrs. Bentley’s, Keats writes to George (his brother) that he ” put all the letters to and from you and poor Tom and me…” [Book II, p. 202] In one of these letters, which Lowell argues Keats must have reread, comes the following:

“We are now about seven miles from Rydale, and expect to see [Wordsworth] to-morrow. You shall hear all about our visit .
There are many disfigurements to this Lake — not in the way of land or Water. No; the two views we have had of it are of the most noble tenderness – they can never fade away – they make one forget the divisions of life; age, youth, poverty and riches; and refine one’s sensual vision into a sort of north star which can never cease to be open lidded and stedfast over the wonders of the great Power…” [Book II, p. 22]

As Lowell points out, the parallels are too uncanny. It doesn’t take much to go from, a sort of north star which can never cease to be open lidded and stedfast over the wonders of the great Power, to:

Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art–

If Keats didn’t lift from having re-read an older letter, then the imagery linking the open lidded eye with the North Star, the one constant star of the sky, was certainly ever fixed in his mind. All poets, and this is something I would like to write more about, reveal a habit of thought, imagery and associations over the course of their careers. The great poets vary them, the competent poets don’t.

Yet another anecdote is related by another of Keats’s biographers, Aileen Ward. She notes that while writing a letter, Keats saw Venus rising outside his window. Ward says that at that moment all “doubt and distraction left him; it was only beauty, Fanny’s and the star’s, that mattered.”

The Sonnet and its Scansion

  • Note! I notice that many internet versions of this poem (including the video below)  have “To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,” instead of “To feel for ever its soft swell and fall“. This may be a viral mistake. One text was typed incorrectly and everyone else copied and pasted. On the other hand, I notice that a copy in The Oxford Book of Sonnets prints the former version.  The version I use is from Jack Stillinger’s the Poems of John Keats, considered to be the most accurate textually. He states that his text is “from the extant holograph fair copy” [p. 327]. I put my money on Stillinger. However, there are metrical reasons why I consider Stillinger’s to be correct. More detail on that below.

Bright Star (Corrected) by John Keats Scansion

The first thing to notice about the sonnet is that it’s a Shakespearean Sonnet. If you’re not sure what that entails then follow the link and you will find my post on Shakespearean, Petrarchan and Spenserian Sonnets. Also, if you’re not sure about scansion or how it’s done, take a look at my post on The Basics. Keats wrote Sonnets in a variety of forms. That he chose the Shakespearean Sonnet, I think, is telling. With all the other parallels, why not the structure of the sonnet?

The form allows Keats to gradually build the the sonnet toward the epigrammatic climax of the couplet:

Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever–or else swoon to death.

The second thing to notice is the meter itself. The first line of the first quatrain is, perhaps, the most easily misread, like Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 or Donne’s Death Be Not Proud. We live in an age when Meter has become a art for fringe poets. As a result, many, if not most, modern poets and readers misread metrical poetry for lack of experience and knowledge. Most modern readers would probably read the line as follows:

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art–

This makes a hash of the meter, effectively reading the line as though it were free verse. But Keats was writing in a strong metrical tradition. As I’ve said in other posts, if one can read a foot as Iambic, then one probably should. So instead of reading the line like this:

Bright Star Trochaic Reading

We should probably read it like this:

Bright Star Iambic Reading

Or we should read the final foot as an outright spondee (as I originally scanned it):

Bright Star Spondaic Reading

Fortunately, unlike my fruitless search for a good reading of Donne’s sonnet, I found a top notch reading of the poem on Youtube. Here it is:

To my ears, he reads the last foot as a spondee. None of these alternate last feet are iambs, by the way. When I say that a foot should be read as an Iamb if it can be, I mean that a foot should be read with a strong stress on the second syllable (an Iamb or Spondee), rather than a falling stress (a trochee). The other reason for emphasizing art is that it’s meant to rhyme with apart. If one de-emphasizises art with a  trochaic reading, then we end up with a false rhyme. Two nearly unpardonable sins would have been committed by the standards of the day.  A trochaic final foot in an Iambic Pentameter pattern (unheard of) and an amateurish false rhyme. Keats was aiming for greatness. We can be fairly sure that he didn’t intend a trochaic final foot.

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art–
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite…

Other than that, the first quatrain is fairly straightforward. An eremite is a hermit. So, what Keats is saying works on two levels. He wants to be steadfast (and by implication her as well), like the North Star (Bright Star), but not in lone splendor – not in lonely contemplation. Keats isn’t wishing for the hermit’s patient search for enlightenment. Nor, importantly, is he wishing for the hermit’s asceticism – his denial of passion and earthly attachment – in a word, sex.

The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors;

In the second quatrain Keats describes the star’s detachment, like the hermit’s, as one of unmoving observation and detachment. The star’s sleeplessness is beautiful and it’s contemplation holy – observing the water’s “priestlike task of pure ablution”. But such contemplation is, for Keats, an inhuman one. It’s no mistake that Keats refers to the shore’s as earth’s human shores – a place of impermanence, fault and failings in need of “pure ablution”. This the world the Keats inhabits. Up to this point, all of Keats’s imagery is observational. The only hint of something more is in the tactile “soft-fallen”. There is little sensual contact or life in these images; but the first two quatrains present a kind of still life – unchanging, holy, and permanent. That said, there’s the feeling that the “new soft-fallen mask/ Of snow upon the mountains” anticipates his lover’s breasts.

The Volta

The sonnet now turns to toward life and, ironically, impermanence. Notice the nice metrical effect of spondaic first foot, it’s emphasis on the word No. One can produce a similar effect in free verse, but the abrupt reversal of the meter, also signaling the Sonnet’s volta, is unmatchable.

No–yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft swell and fall,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,

Notice how the imagery changes. We are suddenly in a world of motion, touch, and feeling. No, says Keats, he wants the permanence of the star but also earth’s human shores. He wants to be forever “pillow’d upon [his] fair love’s ripening breast”. The anthimeria of pillow, using a noun as verb, sensually implies the  softness and warmth of Fanny Brawne’s breasts. The next line gives life and breath to his imagery: He wants to feel her breasts “soft swell and fall” forever “in a sweet unrest”. The sonnet’s meter adds to the effect – the spondaic soft swell follows nicely on the phyrric foot that precedes it, reproducing, it its way, the rise and fall of her breasts. (Also, it’s worth noting that metrically, it makes more sense to have soft swell be a spondaic foot, rather than (as with some versions of the poem)  soft fall. The meter, in a sense, swells with the intake of Fanny’s breath. ) Anyway, on earth’s human shores, there is nothing that is unchangeable and immutable. And Keats knows it. The irony of Keats’ desire for the immutable in a mutable world must find resolution – and there is only one:

Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever–or else swoon to death.

If he could, he would live ever so, but Keats knows the other resolution, the only resolution, must be death. La Petite Mort - by Dimitry Kirilloff Immutability, permanence and the unchangeable can only be found in death.

But what a way to die…

And this brings us to the erotic subtext of the poem. As I wrote earlier, the idea of orgasm, which the French nicely call  the little death or la petite mort, is an ancient conceit (the photo at right, by the way, is called La petite mort, clicking on the image will take you to Kirilloff’s gallery). If we read Keats’ final words as a wry reference to the surrender of orgasm, then there’s a mischievous  and wry smile in Keats’ final words. After all, how do readers interpret “swoon“? Webster’s tells us that to swoon is “to enter a state of hysterical rapture or ecstasy…” Hmmm…. It’s hard to know whether Keats had this in mind. He never wrote overtly sexual poetry, but there is frequently a strong erotic undercurrent to much of his poetry. He was, after all, a sensualist. (Many of the poets who came after him accused him of being an “unmanly” poet – of being too sensuous and effeminate. Keats’ eroticism runs more along the lines of what is considered a feminine  sensuality of touch and feeling.)

Such overt suggestiveness might be a little out of character for Keats but, if it was intended, I think it adds a nice denouement to the sonnet. After all, what is a lust and passion but a “sweet unrest”? And what is the only release from that “sweet unrest” but a swoon to death?  But in this “death”, life is renewed.  Life is engendered, remade and made immutable through the lovers’ swoon or surrender to “death”. Keat’s paradoxical desire for the immutable is resolved. The pleasure of the mutable but sweet unrest of his lovers rising and falling breasts, is only mitigated by the even more pleasurable, eternizing and transcendent pleasure of “death’s swoon”.

Which does Keats prefer? The immutable pleasure implied by the analogy of the changeless star, or the swoon of death? Keats, perhaps, is ready to find pleasure in both. The sonnet is profoundly romantic but, in keeping with Keats’ character, wryly pragmatic.

But this interpretation is conjectural. To Amy Lowell, the final lines are characterized as ending in a “forlorn, majestic peace” and I think this is how the majority of readers read the poem. I, personally, can’t help but think that there was more to Keats’ desire than Romantic obsession. The sheer, physical sexuality of resting his cheek on his lover’s breasts is more than just Romantic boiler plate.

The First Version

And here’s something won’t see very often on the web – considered to be Keats’ first version of the Sonnet.

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art–
Not in lone splendour hung amid the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s devout, sleepless Eremite,
The morning waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen masque
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors–
No–yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Cheek-pillow’d on my Love’s white ripening breast,
Touch for ever, its warm sink and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
To hear, to feel her tender-taken breath,
Half passionless, and so swoon on to death.

To students of poetry, what is worth noting is how few changes made a moving but flawed sonnet into a work of genius. As I’ve said before , it’s not the content of poetry that makes it great, but the style – the language.  The first version, in terms of content, is ostensibly the same as the second version.

  • Changing amid to aloft gives the feeling of a star that is apart from the others, aloft, rather than amid.
  • The adjective devout is simply descriptive – having little connotative power. But the adjective patience is attributive and gives the description the force of personality. It also plays against Keats’ sweet unrest, later in the sonnet. Patience, Keats tells us, is not an attribute he wants to mimic, only its steadfastness and unchangeableness.
  • The change of morning to moving, again changes a simply descriptive adjective to an attributive adjective. Moving gives the waters motion and a kind of intent. It also avoids the conflict of the star having been hung aloft the night, but watching the morning waters.
  • Keats’ initial choice of masque is curious and may be a misprint. A masque is a short, usually celebratory, one act play.
  • “Cheek-pillow’d on my Love’s white ripening breast,” gives us more information than we need. We can already guess that it’s his cheek on her breasts because he uses the anthemeria pillow’d. What else do we put on our pillows but our cheeks? Her white breast is unnecessary. All but a handful of 19th Century English women had white breasts. Keats was just trying to fill out the meter with the adjective white. “Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,” dispenses with both of the former redundancies. The word fair is there solely for the sake of the meter, but doesn’t feel as extraneous or contrived as white. It also allows the emphasis to turn to ripening, which is a beautifully erotic description of a young woman’s breast.
  • “Touch for ever, its warm sink and swell,” The verb touch lacks the rich connotation of feel. After all, we might forensically touch a hot kettle, to find out if it’s too hot; but we wouldn’t feel it. Feeling things is a tactile, sensual act when we want to explore an object. Warm sink and swell is replaced by soft swell and fall. Once again, the adjective warm lacks the connotative sensation of soft. To know that something is warm, we don’t necessarily need to touch or feel it. But to know something is soft implies a more tactile and sensual exploration.  The verb sink is a less neutral expression than fall. Boats sink. Rocks sink. Drowning swimmers sink. Most importantly, when objects sink, they tend not to rise again. Fall is a more neutral, less loaded description. It also rhymes better with unchangea(ble). Keats may have been uneasy with the rhyme between (ble) and swell.
  • To hear, to feel is replaced by Still, still to hear. The latter phrase gives the final couplet a more dramatic, less literary feel. We can hear the wistfulness and expectation of an actual speaker in the disrupted meter – the epizeuxis of Still, still
  • The final line is the most dramatic alteration: “Half passionless, and so swoon on to death.” Half passionless undercuts the eroticism of the poem. Who is half-passionless? Keats? Brawne? What does that mean? The closing line appears to give the sonnet’s ending a more despondent tone, conflicting with the idea of a sweet unrest. Keats probably meant to imply that his ardor was both like the star’s, detached, and like attachment of a lover. But I suspect he sensed the contradiction in the description. It undercuts what had, until then, been a profoundly passionate poem. It also undercuts the erotic suggestiveness of a swooning death.

And here is the companion Sonnet Fanny Brawne wrote into her copy of Dante:

As Hermes once took to his feathers light,
When lulled Argus, baffled, swooned and slept,
So on a Delphic reed, my idle spright
So played, so charmed, so conquered, so bereft
The dragon-world of all its hundred eyes;
And seeing it asleep, so fled away,
Not to pure Ida with its snow-cold skies,
Nor unto Tempe, where Jove grieved a day;
But to that second circle of sad Hell,
Where in the gust, the whirlwind, and the flaw
Of rain and hail-stones, lovers need not tell
Their sorrows. Pale were the sweet lips I saw,
Pale were the lips I kissed, and fair the form
I floated with, about that melancholy storm.

If this post was enjoyable or a help to you, please let me know! If you have questions, comments or suggestions. Comment. In the meantime, write (G)reatly!

Bright Star by Jane Campion

Don’t know much about the movie. But as with all movies like these, it may be based on a true story, but it remains a work of fiction. I can’t wait to see it.